Trump’s recent tweet on the suburbs in historical context


Here is Trump yesterday:

A few thoughts:

  1. What does Trump mean by “bothered?”
  2. There is a long history of this kind of rhetoric. I wrote about it in this post.
  3. My colleagues at Messiah University offered some good historical context in this op-ed.
  4. Does this tweet also apply to the millions of white working class and poor who voted for Trump in 2016?
  5. Read Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
  6. On the suburbs I still like Kenneth Jackson, The Crabgrass Frontier: The Surbanization of the United States.
  7.  I also recommend Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

David Brooks interviews Bruce Springsteen


In February 2018, I spoke to New York Times columnist David Brooks at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York City. We were both there to see “Springsteen on Broadway.” You can read about our very, very brief encounter here.

I thought about that moment as I read Brooks’s interview with Bruce Springsteen, published today at The Atlantic.

Here is a taste:

Brooks: There is a question I’ve always wanted to ask you. You’ve spent so much of your life writing about working-class men and, in particular, working-class men who were victims of deindustrialization, who used to work in the factories and mills that were closed, whether in Asbury Park or Freehold or Youngstown or throughout the Midwest. But a lot of those guys didn’t turn out to share your politics. They became Donald Trump supporters. What’s your explanation for that?

Springsteen: There’s a long history of working people being misled by a long list of demagogues, from George Wallace and Jesse Helms to fake religious leaders like Jerry Falwell to our president.

The Democrats haven’t really made the preservation of the middle and working class enough of a priority. And they’ve been stymied in bringing more change by the Republican Party. In the age of Roosevelt, Republicans represented business; Democrats represented labor. And when I was a kid, the first and only political question ever asked in my house was “Mom, what are we, Democrats or Republicans?” And she answered, “We are Democrats because they’re for the working people.” (I have a sneaking suspicion my mom went Republican towards the end of her cognizant life, but she never said anything about it!)

In addition, there is a core and often true sense of victimization that has been brought on by the lightning pace of deindustrialization and technological advancement that’s been incredibly traumatic for an enormous amount of working people across the nation. The feeling of being tossed aside, left behind by history, is something our president naturally tapped into.

There is resentment of elites, of specialists, of cosmopolitan coast dwellers, some of it merited. It is due to attitudes among some that discount the value and sacrifice so many working people have made for their country. When the wars are being fought, they are there.  When the job is dirty and rough, they are there. But the president cynically taps into primal resentments and plays on patriotism for purely his political gain.

There is a desire for a figure who will once again turn back the clock to full factories, high wages, and for some, the social status that comes with being white—that is a difficult elixir, prejudices and all, for folks who are in dire straits to resist. Our president didn’t deliver on the factories or the jobs returning from overseas or much else for our working class. The only thing he delivered on was resentment, division, and the talent for getting our countrymen at each other’s throats. He made good on that, and that is how he thrives.  

Read the entire interview here.

“Blue Collar” as a Sports Marketing Gimmick

blue collarIn a just-released Episode 62 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, I reminisce with our founding producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling about the time we may have offended ESPN’s Paul Lukas, a historian of sports uniforms and founder of Uni-Watch.  Listen to our interview with Lukas in Episode 7.

Lukas has a great piece at The New Republic on the way sports teams use the label “blue-collar” as an “attitude, a lifestyle, a brand, a hashtag.”  Here is a taste:

Earlier this month, the New York Giants held a press conference to introduce their new head coach, Joe Judge. In between the usual football clichés about how the Giants will “play aggressive” and have a “physical attitude” under his leadership, Judge dipped his toe into the pool of class consciousness. “I want this team to reflect this area. That is blue-collar. It’s hard work,” he said. “We’re gonna come to work every day and grind it out the way they do in their jobs every day.” That same day, Mississippi State University announced that it had hired Mike Leach as its new head football coach. The school’s athletic director, John Cohen, issued a statement praising Leach for, among other things, his “blue-collar approach” to football.

These were just the latest examples of a phenomenon that the sports world shares with politics: a strong desire to be associated with the working class, often in ways that strain logic and credulity.

The sports world’s blue-collar roots are real enough. The Green Bay Packers got their name from a meatpacking company that originally sponsored the team. The Detroit Pistons got theirs because their first owner ran a piston foundry. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ logo is based on the “Steelmark” originally used by U.S. Steel. And before the days of multimillion-dollar contracts, pro athletes routinely worked regular jobs during the off-season—often in blue-collar trades—to make ends meet.

Those days are long gone, but that hasn’t stopped teams from trying to establish their working-class bona fides. While the trope isn’t new, it has become unavoidable in recent years, especially in the realm of team marketing and branding.

Read the rest here.

Indeed, this idea of playing sports in a “blue-collar” fashion has been around for a long time.  This phrase seems to be always associated with a team that makes up for its lack of talent with a heavy dose of grit, determination, and hard work.

My public high school lacrosse coach often described our team as “blue collar” as a way of motivating us whenever we played an expensive prep school.  Football teams that run the ball (“3 yards and a cloud of dust”) are often described as playing “old school” or “blue-collar” ball. (Are the 2020 San Fransisco 49ers a blue collar team?).  In basketball, athletes committed to playing defense, rebounding, and diving for loose balls in the open court are often called “blue collar.” Blue collar baseball players–like Pete Rose–are known for their “hustle” on the base-paths and hear-first dives.  Some have made the case that ice-hockey is a blue-collar sport.

I’ll close this post by linking to an article in The Guardian announcing that “every single US sports team is blue collar.”

The Class War Within the Class War

It was going to happen sooner or later. The progressive wing of the Democratic Party appears to have split.  Some support Bernie Sanders.  Some support Elizabeth Warren.  Their non-aggression pact has apparently dissolved.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Clare Malone argues that Sanders and Warren appeal to two  different progressive constituencies.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren played to a friendly crowd when she visited Brooklyn last week. The rally at King’s Theatre on Flatbush Avenue — an ornate people’s palace kind of joint with fleur de lis in the molding and vaudeville ghosts in the rafters — was a 4,800-person shot in the arm for her campaign, which had been flatlining of late. Julián Castro, young, Latino and recently out of the presidential race, had just endorsed Warren and there seemed to be a sense in the air — with a heavy hint from the mass-produced “We ❤ Julián” signs circulating — that the campaign was looking for a little good news out of the evening. The crowd scanned as largely young and professional, and a little girl sitting just in front of me waved another sign: “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.”

Just under a week later, the Warren campaign would be at war with Sen. Bernie Sanders over Warren’s claim that Sanders told her in a private 2018 meeting that he didn’t think a woman could win the 2020 presidential election. This salvo from Warren’s camp was seen as a response to reports that talking points for Sanders volunteers characterized Warren as the choice of “highly educated, more affluent people,” a demographic both key to Democratic electoral success and associated with Hillary Clinton’s supposed out-of-touch elitism. Within a few hours, what had been a cold-war battle to define the left wing of the Democratic Party had gone hot. The handshake-that-wasn’t between Sanders and Warren at Tuesday night’s debate seemed to inflame tensions even more.

What’s curious, though, is that the rift isn’t over policy particulars. The Warren vs. Sanders progressivism fight seems to be more stylistic, an unexpectedly tense class war of sorts within the broader progressive class war. Should progressive populism be wonky and detail-oriented and appeal to college-educated former Clinton voters? Or a more contentious outsider assault on the powers-that-be from the overlooked millions of the middle and lower-middle class?

Read the rest here.

Study: U.S. Billionaires Paid a Lower Tax Rate than the Working Class

Triumph of InjusticeIn 2018, American billionaires paid a lower tax rate than than the working class.  This is the first time in this has ever happened.

Here is Chris Ingraham’s piece at The Washington Post:

A new book-length study on the tax burden of the ultrarich begins with a startling finding: In 2018, for the first time in history, America’s richest billionaires paid a lower effective tax rate than the working class.

The Triumph of Injustice,” by economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California at Berkeley, presents a first-of-its kind analysis of Americans’ effective tax rates since the 1960s. It finds that in 2018 the average effective tax rate paid by the richest 400 families in the country was 23 percent, a full percentage point lower than the 24.2 percent rate paid by the bottom half of American households.

In 1980, by contrast, the 400 richest had an effective tax rate of 47 percent. In 1960, their tax rate was as high as 56 percent. The effective tax rate paid by the bottom 50 percent, by contrast, has changed little over time.

The analysis differs from many other published estimates of tax burdens by encompassing the totality of taxes Americans pay: not just federal income taxes but also corporate taxes, as well as taxes paid at the state and local levels. It also includes the burden of about $250 billion of what Saez and Zucman call “indirect taxes,” such as licenses for motor vehicles and businesses.

Read the rest here.

An Accidental Professor

CrucetI love reading stories of professors raised in working-class families.  I thus need to read Jennine Capo Crucet’s recent book My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.  The Atlantic is running a piece based on the book.  Here is a taste:

I am a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a professor—one of those people who seemed to emanate brilliance and poise, the people who made knowledge!—felt like too big of a leap for me, as someone who comes from a working-class family of electricians. Add to this the fact that the majority of my professors were white, and that most of them were male, and that most of the books they taught and deemed important enough to be covered in survey courses were written by straight white men, and you can see how a Cuban girl from Miami could come to think academia wasn’t the place for her.

When it came to having the privilege of choosing a career path, I did what people who’ve internalized systemic oppression sometimes do: I aimed for something different that felt more appropriate, more attainable. I decided I’d make a good high-school English teacher. I’d still get to talk about books and teach people to love and value the act of writing. And I’d have summers to work on all the novels and short stories I wanted to write.

Then something happened that very subtly set me on a different path. What happened was that I stayed up too late one night in my dorm, and I went in on pizza with some girls on my floor, and we got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives. Of the four other women in the room, three of them had at least one parent who was a lawyer. I was searching my brain for what they would consider the right answer, which I somehow intuited was not high-school English teacher. When they asked me, I blurted out what I thought was an appropriately upgraded version of my dream: “I want to be an English professor.” And the minute I said it, I knew it could be true.

I genuinely did not think I was smart enough to be a professor. Even today, when I think of a professor, the image that comes to my mind is of a specific white man, James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature who wore a for-real tweed jacket—with the elbow patches and everything—and who was so freaky smart and accomplished that I remember tracing my fingers over the written comments he’d add at the end of my papers, hoping his brilliance would somehow transfer to me that way. But I knew when the sentence came out of my mouth that I wanted to be someone who made knowledge, who got to live in books and in theories about books, who got to spend her life writing while teaching future generations of writers how to pick apart the books they loved and discover how they were built.

Read the entire piece here.

Maybe Bruce Springsteen Was Born to Run Home

springsteen netflix

Springsteen on Broadway (courtesy of Netflix)

Religion News Service is running my piece on Catholicism and “home” in “Springsteen on Broadway.” Needless to say, I had fun with this one.

Here is a taste:

Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … (the priests and nuns) did their work hard and they did it well.”

Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.

Maybe this is what it means, as he wrote famously in “Born to Run,” to “get to that place where we really want to go” where we can “walk in the sun.” Maybe Bruce Springsteen was born to run home.

Over the years, Springsteen has become the darling of progressive politicians. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and (briefly) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he tells his story on Broadway, he transports us back to a day when progressive ideals and the relentless quest for the American dream were not separated from tradition, roots, place, a longing for home, and Christian faith.

Read the entire piece here.

What Readings Would You Put on a 2016 Election Syllabus?

cowieProcess: A Blog for American History , a blog run by the Organization of American Historians, asked historians to tweet some book recommendations to help people understand the 2016 election.

What a great exercise!

Here are some of the books recommended by American historians:

Jefferson Cowie, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class

David Roediger, Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Matthew Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race

George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Landon Storrs, The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left

W.E.B. Du Bous, Black Reconstruction in America

Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Daniel Rodgers, Age of Fracutre

Danielle Allen, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education

Kevin Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism

Thomas Sugrue, Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit


Read the entire list here.

Quote of the Day

From the editorial board of The New York Times:

The Carrier deal stands as an interesting argument against longstanding Republican economic orthodoxy.  In making the deal, Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence have embraced the idea that government does indeed have a role to play in the free market.  They intervened, and as a result, 800 people will keep their jobs.  If they applied the same interventionist approach to other labor issues–raising the minimum wage and expanding overtime pay come to mind–millions of working people might actually stand a chance.

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America


My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

The Author’s Corner with Matthew Pehl

The Making of a Working Class Religion.jpgMatthew Pehl is Assistant Professor of History at Augustana University. This interview is based on his new book, The Making of Working-Class Religion (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write The Making of Working-Class Religion?

MP: I wanted to think about the history of work, and working people, from a perspective that lent itself to ethical interpretations, so I gravitated toward the role of religion in working peoples’ lives. Though I hadn’t read his works yet, I realize now that my thinking was similar to David Brion Davis, who examined slavery as a moral problem that confounded an era otherwise characterized by enlightenment and democratization. Similarly, I felt that the dislocations of the industrial working class presented a moral conundrum to a post-slavery society otherwise (theoretically) committed to equality. In addition to this general interest, I knew that I wanted to tell my story from the bottom-up. The world already has many fine books about well-educated ministers and their promotion of a “social gospel,” but I was pretty sure that these books did not tell us very much about the way religion was actually practiced and expressed by working-class people. Fortunately, I was able to find some remarkably rich and revealing primary sources relating to workers in Detroit. It was the existence of this source base that led me to turn my project into a case study. And once I did, I realized that there was a third reason to write this book: finding “working class religion” in Detroit meant pushing beyond our usual markers of denomination, ethnicity, and race. My book is largely the story of people who belonged to three groups—Catholics, African American Protestants, and evangelical white Protestants from the rural South—who were sometimes ill-at-ease with each other, but whose collective experiences should lead readers to reflect on the ways in which class shapes our experiences of, and expectations for, religion.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Making of Working-Class Religion?

MP: Religious consciousness and class are more similar and deeply linked than is often acknowledged, because both are socially invented identities that develop historically and find expression in cultural forms. However, the relationship between these two potent forces is hardly stable or predictable. In 20th century Detroit, the intermingling of religious and class identities led to both a surge of liberal, racially pluralist labor activism and a vigorous conservative backlash against modernism and pluralism.

JF: Why do we need to read The Making of Working-Class Religion?

The best reason to read a history book is see the past—and thus the present—in a new way. I hope that readers come away with two ideas stuck in their head.

First, religion is a multiverse, not a universe. I think that far too much of the discourse surrounding religion tries to cope with the immensity of the subject by reducing it to simple categories: “conservative” or “progressive,” “moderate” or “radical,” even “socially good” or “socially bad.” This is surely understandable when striving for clarity, but it seems fundamentally false to me. The religion that I discerned operating among Detroit’s working classes was deeply ambivalent. What I mean is that their religion took multiple ideas, emotions, desires, customs, and beliefs—including many that seemed in direct tension with each other—and reconciled them into identities that looked outwardly paradoxical but seemed nevertheless to provide internal cohesion. Religion was meaningful to many of these people not because it was clear and simple, but because it was ambivalent and complex. Moreover, while working people inherited generations-worth of religious idioms and traditions, their religious consciousness was not simply handed to them from clerical leaders: workers were agents in shaping religion for themselves.

Second, I would like people to think about work in moral and ethical terms. Our public discourse insistently, and falsely, reduces work to the purely economic. Yet, we all know that work does far more than merely provide an income: it shapes our social identity and, for many, gives us a sense of purpose, direction, and responsibility. These broader effects of work give shape to families, communities, and ultimately our politics. Is it any wonder, then, that the recent flurry of scholarship and journalism on the pain of the modern American working class discloses fractured families, desolate communities, and an inchoate sense of rootlessness and anger? My books does not offer any policy prescriptions, to be sure, but I hope that it illustrates the deeply human need for work infused with meaning, and the social dangers that come from denying it.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MP: Like a lot of people, after I graduated from college, I felt myself at a crossroads, uncertain where to go or how to get there. While I was in this mental state, I randomly picked up a copy of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, an 800-page tome examining the assassination of Idaho ex-Governor Frank Stuenenberg and the subsequent trial of the Industrial Workers of the World leaders charged with the crime. I still don’t know what drew me to the book; it was totally unlike my usual reading material (which tended to me also anything but American history), yet reading it felt like a revelation. The idea that workers and employers in the U.S. had waged literal (if sporadic), decades long class war over issues of economic power startled me. Indeed, I immediately wondered why I was so ignorant of this history, and began to suspect that our collective “forgetting” of this past was not accidental. Big Trouble gave me a sense of rootedness, a concrete feeling that the world I inhabited actually came from somewhere and could be explained. Sparking this feeling remains my main goal as a teacher and writer.   

JF: What is your next project?

MP: I am just completing a small-scale project that examines second-wave feminism on the northern plains during the 1970s. I have a number of ideas about where to go next, but honestly I have had a hard time committing to a single project. I’ll make up my mind soon, though.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

Understanding Trump Supporters

vanceJedidiah Purdy‘s piece at The New Republic, “Red-State Blues,” is one of the best things I have read on the world view of Donald Trump supporters.  The piece focuses on two important books on Trump country: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (a National Book Award long-lister for non-fiction) and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.

Here is a taste:

In Blue America, from Berkeley and Brooklyn to Durham and Austin, talking about Trump supporters has become an addiction that, like checking your phone, asserts itself in moments of weakness or inattention. Meals begin with promises that this time we will talk about something else. Then, faithful as a bad habit, conversation turns back to troubling questions: Who are these people? What are they thinking?

There’s plenty of cause for worry. Trump claimed the Republican presidential nomination on an identity politics of white, nominally Christian nativism that has not been so explicit in American politics for many decades. Even if his blustering, scattershot campaign flames out in November, as many have expected or hoped, it will be survived by the millions who supported him, many enthusiastically. If they continue to embrace some version of Trump’s nationalism, what will that mean for the shape of the political landscape? For the rest of us, accepting the right’s white identity politics as part of normal life, year in and year out, is a bleak prospect. So is treating perhaps a third of your fellow citizens as beyond the pale of normal politics. Anyone who is not a Trump enthusiast should hope that there is some other way to address his supporters, and for them to understand themselves.

Yet when liberals talk about Trump voters, they are often driven to conjecture and make-believe. The question, “Do you know anybody who is for Trump?” is answered by some variation on: “A few people I know on Facebook, some from high school; maybe my husband’s uncle, but we don’t really talk about it.” And then it’s back to, “Who are these people?” The conversations themselves are symptoms of a country whose political segregation runs through our neighborhoods, workplaces, and social media.

Arlie Russell Hochschild, an eminent left-liberal sociologist, and J.D. Vance, a Republican ex-marine and recent Yale Law School graduate with Appalachian roots, have thrown two rather different bridges over this divide. Hochschild, who lives in Berkeley, must have heard dozens of these tail-chasing conversations. Maybe it was their hermetic quality that inspired her new book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a combination of travelogue and sociological analysis that distills several years of visits to rural and small-town Louisiana. There, Hochschild gets to know Tea Party supporters, most of whom become Trump supporters by the end of her research, and works to understand the world view that organizes their politics.

Read the entire piece here.

Does Bruce Springsteen Explain Donald Trump?

Born-in-the-USAAndrew DeYoung has written a very interesting piece at The Stake suggesting that the message of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonates with the concerns of people who are supporting Donald Trump for President of the United States.  It is a nuanced piece that I need to spend a little more time thinking about, but it is definitely worth the read.  See some of my initial thought below.

DeYoung writes:

It’s February 29, 2016, the night before Super Tuesday, and Bruce Springsteen is singing about choices. The Boss is performing at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, his latest stop on a national tour celebrating the release of 1980’s The River. Each show on the tour includes a live performance of the double record in its entirety, and Bruce has just come to “The Price You Pay,” the album’s third-to-last cut.

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
Out onto an open road you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay

“The Price You Pay” is an ode to unintended consequences. It’s a song about making tough decisions unsure of how they’ll turn out, about taking a turn down a dark road that might just as easily lead to ruin as to glory. It’s an appropriate song for the night before the Minnesota caucuses, when voters will choose which presidential candidate they’d like to represent their party in the fall—a choice with uncertain outcomes. That choice seems to be pretty far from the crowd’s mind right now, though. They’ve come here to be distracted from their problems, not reminded of them. And Springsteen is doing his best to oblige, the 66-year-old rocker singing and dancing and running around the stage with the energy of a much younger man.

But I’m thinking about Donald Trump all the same. The New York businessman has transformed the presidential race on the Republican side with his promises of border walls, mass deportations, a halt to Muslim immigration. He’s publicly supported torture and other war crimes. He’s bullied his opponents. He’s said racist and misogynist things like it’s his second nature.

If the Republicans choose this man as their presidential nominee, and if America chooses him as its president—what price would the country pay for that choice? America made great again? The rise of fascism? Something in between? It’s hard to say.

Such thoughts might seem out of place at a rock show—except that the crowd here at the X tonight is a Trump crowd. That’s an oversimplification, of course—there’s no way to reliably judge the political proclivities of 15,000 strangers. But it’s certainly true that Springsteen and Trump appeal to similar demographics. The Boss is the workin’ man’s rock star, and the crowd here tonight skews white, skews old, skews working class. That’s Trump’s core constituency, too: his supporters are generally white, not college-educated, and blue collar.

Again, DeYoung’s piece is a lot more nuanced than the excerpt I have chosen above.  He knows that Springsteen’s politics and message (especially in his last several albums) are much more in line with Bernie Sanders than The Donald.  But he also recognizes that Springsteen’s songs about economic hardship, the brokenness of everyday life, the reality of sin, and the slow but steady decline of American industry and industrial towns are also things that Trump supporters are concerned about. And he also knows about the whole George Will/Ronald Reagan/”Born in the USA” controversy in 1984.

But I do wonder if DeYoung’s assessment of the crowd at the Excel Energy Center on February 29 is correct.  I have been to a lot of Springsteen shows in the last ten years. Indeed, the crowd is white and the crowd is old(er).  And yes, there are probably some people in the audience who did not go to college.

On the other hand, most of the people I meet at Bruce shows in places like Philadelphia, State College, Hershey, and Baltimore are solidly middle class folks (they can afford the $150.00 ticket) who were raised in the working class and remain nostalgic for certain aspects of that upbringing.   They are mostly educated.  I am guessing a lot of them were first-generation college students in the 1970s and 1980s who are now paying tuition for their own kids to go to college. (Bruce played a lot of college campuses in the 1970s).  Many come to the show with their families, rather than with their drinking buddies from school. And if they do come with their drinking buddies from school, they spend more time reminiscing about the “Glory Days” than the social ills that Springsteen’s music tries to address.  Most of them come to hear “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” and “Born to Run” over “The Price You Pay,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “The Wall,” or “Death to My Hometown.”   Some of Springsteen’s social justice message might even offer a stinging critique to the lives they have chosen to live.

Springsteen is still attracting the same people, but they are no longer living in the 1970s world of working-class struggle that probably drew them to his music in the first place. I am sure that there were some Trump supporters in the audience in Minneapolis, but I would imagine that the crowd was also politically diverse.

Read DeYoung’s entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Christopher Cantwell, Heath Carter, and Janine Giordano Drake

ThePewandthePicketLineChristopher D. Cantwell is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at University of Missouri at Kansas City;  Heath W. Carter is Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University; and Janine Giordano Drake is Assistant Professor of History at University of Great Falls. This interview with Cantwell is based on their new book, The Pew and the Picket Line: Christianity and the American Working Class (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

JF: What led you all to edit Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: In one sense this collection grew out of a panel on “Class and the Transformation of American Protestantism” that Janine, Heath, and I put together for the American Society for Church History’s 2012. In another sense, however, this project emerged from the growth of scholarship on the religious histories of working people that has emerged over the last ten years. All of the contributors are early- to mid-career scholars whose work is situated in those spaces where American religious history and American labor history intersect or overlap. And what’s remarkable, I think, is the breadth of this new work. The collections has essays on everything form the esoteric theology of nineteenth-century labor activists to the faith-healing practices of Midwestern metal miners to the role syncretic religious beliefs plaid in galvanizing a strike of female pecan shellers in San Antonio. We had hoped to have the collection cover as much temporal and geographic ground as possible, and we’re excited to have essays on working men and women from a range of racial, ethnic, and geographic categories. It gives the collection a decidedly multivocal quality. Indeed, we three editors occasionally argued at length over the consequences of blending religious and labor history–and I should note that the opinions here are my own. But we all agreed of the importance of this intervention.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: There is no history of American religion that is not also a history of labor. Conversely, there is no history of America’s working people that does not also attend to the history of religion.

JF: Why do we need to read Pew and the Picket Line?

CC: In an era in which the history of capitalism is currently in vogue among scholars of religion, the collection argues for the inclusion of working people in this emerging field. While scholars have examined the faith of corporate leaders at great length few have ventured down to the shop floor. We think it’s important, indeed essential, to do so. The beliefs and practices of working people not only shaped their social lives, but also impacted the places they worked. This impact, in turn, could potentially effect the shape of entire industries. The collection is a call to attend to this complexity.

JF: Thanks, Christopher!

The Radical Roots of Labor Day

Over at Talking Points Memo, Ben Railton of Fitchburg State University, sheds some light on the holiday that we are celebrating today.

A taste:

It’s become commonplace to complain about how the true meanings of our American holidays have been forgotten in favor of weekend sales, cookouts and family gatherings. But the problem is particularly clear when it comes to Labor Day. While holidays like Memorial Day or the Fourth of July still feature prominent collective and media reminders of their historical and cultural significance alongside the barbeques and beach trips, Labor Day has become almost entirely divorced from its origins and associated instead with one last burst of summer fun before the fall and new school year commence in earnest….

The question of who is responsible for the creation of a holiday devoted to labor remains in some dispute. For many years it was attributed to Peter McGuire, a carpenter who became a national labor leader in the 1880s; recently historians have argued instead for Matthew Maguire, a machinist and leader of the New York Central Labor Union (CLU).

We do know that the holiday originated in the early 1880s, and the first parade was organized in New York by the CLU and the national union the Knights of Labor on September 5, 1882. In their inclusion of every type of worker, including unskilled and immigrant workers (the latter a particularly radical position in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and significant anti-immigrant trends in the labor movement), the Knights embodied one element of late 19th century labor radicalism, and their parades reflected this identity.

Read the rest here.  Or read Heath Carter’s piece at the Oxford University Press blog.

The 20th-Century Ethnic White Working Class and Immigration Restriction

It is hard to imagine that Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and be elected President of the United States, but Michael Kazin, the Georgetown University historian, wants to give it a shot.

Kazin reminds us of what happened to the Republican Party in the wake of its last attempt to restrict immigration–the Johnson Reed Act, also known as the 1924 Immigration Act.  From 1930 to 1960 the number of people migrating to the United States was reduced by more than 75%.  Sadly, the decision to reduce the number of immigrants was based almost entirely on race–an attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon culture in America.

So what happened to the GOP after the Johnson-Reed Act?  Here is a taste of Kazin’s piece at Politico:

But the political backlash from that dramatic shift in demographics was fierce. Immigrants from places like Poland, Italy, and Russia who already lived in the U.S. and their American-born children deeply resented quotas that barred them from bringing over their relatives and friends. Most also despised the prohibition of alcohol, which they viewed as an attack by evangelical Protestants on their cultures and their right to imbibe any beverage they chose….

At the time, big-city Democrats warned that nativists would regret their decision to bar non-“Anglo-Saxons” from the land…

Instead of leaving, white ethnics took out their bitterness at the polling booth. In 1928, many voted for the first time, swelling the total for Al Smith, the Catholic Democrat from New York. Amid the prosperity of that decade, Smith lost to Herbert Hoover. But in 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, their votes swung nearly every big state to Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR didn’t have enough support in Congress to get rid of the quotas (most Southern Democrats favored them). But his party did repeal prohibition and enact programs like the Works Progress Administration and the National Labor Relations Act that helped millions of ethnics find jobs and form unions.

In the decade since the restrictive quotas had been passed, young workers from the kind of ethnic groups that Republicans derided had become increasingly “Americanized.” English was their first language; they had been educated in the U.S., flocked to the same Hollywood movies and danced to the same swing tunes as did other Americans—and they were registered to vote. Despite the Great Depression, they also felt secure enough to question the authority of their employers – most of whom were loyal Republicans, the party in charge when Wall Street crashed and the jobless rate soared to twenty-five percent.

All this made white ethnic workers natural recruits for the new unions established, through sit-down strikes and other forms of pressure, in the steel, auto, longshore, aircraft, and electrical industries during the 1930s and 40s. “Go to hell! You’ve had me long enough. I’m going to be a man on my own now!” an official of the United Electrical Workers told his members. First and second-generation immigrants welcomed the ethnic pluralism of the new labor movement, as did blacks and Mexican-Americans, and claimed American traditions for themselves. In one New England textile town, union organizers compared their bosses to King George III and urged workers to emulate the Pilgrims and the “wise, hardy, and staunch” pioneers in covered wagons who risked everything to attain prosperity for their families. Between 1933 and 1945, unions added nine million new members to their ranks. As it surged, organized labor had become a rainbow coalition—and a mainstay of the Democratic Party.

In four straight elections, FDR crushed his Republican opponents in big cities and factory towns filled with white ethnics and African-Americans. Their votes also turned states like Pennsylvania and Illinois, which had traditionally voted Republican, into Democratic strongholds. The party nominated scores of Jews, Polish Catholics, and Italians to local and state offices. During the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower and other moderate Republicans won back some of these voters. But in 1960, John Kennedy – running as a Catholic, pro-labor liberal – reassembled much of FDR’s old coalition. He was the first president to owe his victory to a alliance of religious, ethnic, and racial minorities.

Thus, by closing the borders to all but a trickle of newcomers they disliked, Republicans ensured that they would provoke the lasting hostility of millions of immigrants and, just as importantly, their children, all of whom had already crossed those borders. During the 1930s and 40s, Democrats won every single presidential election, even as the foreign-born population decreased from 11.6 percent to just over half that number.

Read the rest here.

Kazin’s argument makes sense and should serve as a warning to those GOP contenders like Trump who want to restrict immigration.  I imagine that critics of the piece will say that Kazin’s early 20th century immigrants were legal immigrants while many Mexicans come into the country illegally. Nevertheless, his piece is worth considering.

I realize that this is an op-ed, but Kazin puts a lot of interpretive weight on the idea that white ethnics joined unions and supported the Democratic Party because they were angry about immigration restriction.  

I am the grandson of these ethnic immigrants.  I am half Italian and half Slovakian.  My grandparents and great-grandparents all came over between 1880 and 1920.  My paternal grandfather (Italian)
died last year at the age of 103.  He loved to talk politics.  He was a lifelong Democrat who spent his working life driving trucks for several Newark, NJ breweries.  He would also say that he was a Democrat because it was the party of the “working man.”  

In thirty or more years of political conversations, and several hours of oral history interviews, my grandfather never mentioned that he or his family were Democrats because of the memory 
of immigration restriction in the 1920s (and we got into a lot stuff about Italian-American identity, the Democratic Party, and his life as Teamster). He often mentioned the racial and ethnic slurs he endured as an Italian working in German-run breweries, but most of these slurs came from Anglo-Saxon co-workers who were also Democrats.  My grandfather’s identity as a member of the Democratic Party was probably rooted more in working-class solidarity and the Catholic Church.  

I am not a scholar of this area, but personal experience tells me that the ethnic white-working class probably became Democrats for reasons other than Johnson-Reed.  On the other hand, Kazin’s piece has made me think about what may have been some of my grandfather’s unspoken assumptions. 

The Golden Age of Bowling

Earl Anthony

I used to do a lot of bowling as a kid.  I think I bowled my highest game in 7th grade–a 223. Somewhere at my parents’ house in New Jersey is a box of (mostly broken) bowling trophies.  I even owned a bowling ball.  During the 1970s it seemed like everyone bowled.  (No one was “Bowling Alone.”) The parking lot at Boonton Lanes was always packed on Saturday mornings and weekday nights.  It was not until I grew older that I realized that it was mostly a working class leisure sport.

I also used to watch a lot of bowling on television.  Every Saturday I would see bowlers like Earl Anthony (my favorite), Larry Laub, Mark Roth, and Marshall Holman compete for prize money.  Chris Schenkel and Nelson Burton Jr. would call the tournaments in their yellow sport jackets with the ABC patch. They would spend the entire telecast whispering.  My grandfather on my mother’s side was a die-hard bowler.  Every Saturday afternoon he would be riveted to the television.

A blog called Priceonomics is running a fabulous post called “The Rise and Fall of Professional Bowling.”  It brought back a lot of memories.  Here is a taste:

There was a time when professional bowlers reigned supreme. 
In the “golden era” of the 1960s and 70s, they made twice as much money as NFL stars, signed million dollar contracts, and were heralded as international celebrities. After each match, they’d be flanked by beautiful women who’d seen them bowl on television, or had read about them in Sports Illustrated. 
Today, the glitz and glamour has faded. Pro bowlers supplement their careers with second jobs, like delivering sod, or working at a call center. They share Motel 6 rooms on tour to save on travel expenses, and thrive on the less-than-exciting dime of beef jerky sponsorships.
Once sexy, bowling is now synonymous with cheap beer and smelly feet. In an entertainment-saturated culture, has the once formidable sport been gutter-balled? What exactly is it like to be a professional bowler today?